From stone age burials to defunct dictators, Leick’s volume - though an informed travelogue - lacks consistency and greater meaning
My late headmaster, who was an enthusiast for the court of Louis XIV and Cardinal Richelieu, used to say that all bad things stemmed from the French Revolution. The tombs of defunct dictators provide a perfect illustration of this theory, for it was surely the psychopaths and gangsters of the immediate post-revolutionary government and their orgy of state-sponsored pagan kitsch, hatefully adorned with neo-classical tropes mendaciously promoted as ‘enlightenment’, that came to inspire the tyrants’ tombs. Leick’s book describes a good selection, starting with Communists and moving through European Fascists to Asian separatists and African nationalists. It will sell well. The Collins Gem series once included a handy little guide to Dictators, and this can sit on the shelf next to that.
I should get the bad news out of the way first. This book is quite strange. It consists without much overall consistency of some potted histories of nationalist movements, some personal reminiscences of travel experiences, and some very basic architectural descriptions. It has appalling images: it is sometimes said that Phoebe Stanton’s legendary Pugin monograph has the worst photographs of any book ever published on architectural history, and I think this one has outdone it: blurry; weak contrast; over or under exposed; inclining verticals; occasionally slightly crooked; and not particularly helpful to the text: the lot.
It was, for example, impossible to understand from them what was going on in the Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum. What looks like the sole professional photograph, by Joan Gaffiney of Habib Bourguiba’s mausoleum at Monastir in Tunisia, stands out as a jewel of clarity and composition. There are no architects’ drawings, which means that some of the vanished or alternative projects referred to remain unclear, and also suggests that the editors never really decided who their readership was. The astonishing announcement that Enver Hoxha’s ‘mausoleum’ (actually intended as some kind of museum) ‘now functions as a shopping and art centre’ goes unillustrated.
The book makes some questionable claims, for example on its first page that the tomb structure of the Hapsburg Ferdinand II in Graz ‘happens to be the only purpose-built mausoleum for a European emperor’. Even if Queen Victoria, whose mausoleum was purpose-built at her command from 1862, was not strictly ‘a European emperor’ − does Malta count? − Napoleon III certainly was, and Hippolyte Destailleur’s strange and underappreciated Farnborough Abbey is there to remind us of it. Contrary to what you read here, Louis XVIII, not Louis Philippe, was king of France in 1821. And should not a copy editor have attended to the fact that Ilya Zbarsky, who appears on page 96, was the son of Boris Zbarsky from two pages beforehand, and not a misprint? But oddest of all is the lack of any kind of conclusion. Academics and enthusiasts alike could surely think of something to say that throws all this together, preferably slightly camp and dystopian, the usual phenomenological blowjob. There is a passing reference to Bachelard at the start; he could have been wheeled out again. But no: nothing.
The job of making sense of these structures is therefore left to us. Some messages emerge effectively: Leick prefers the kind of tomb where people come to picnic. Private enterprise made a decent job of setting up Lincoln’s improbable mausoleum, a fancy column above a crypt in his home town of Springfield, Illinois, and the clumsiness of its Neo-Classical design, and its long periods of desuetude, combine to offer a romance quite missing from the sterile official temple erected in his honour at the federal capital. Surprisingly, both Ali Jinnah’s mausoleum in Karachi and Ziaur Rahman’s near Louis Kahn’s parliament in Dacca also function happily for picnickers, skateboarders and flâneurs. Rahman’s, like Lenin’s but otherwise very rarely in this book, was designed by a competent architect. Given the awfulness of local circumstances, the temporary tomb designed in Ramallah for Yasser Arafat − en route to Jerusalem − is neat and respectful. Leick’s references to its design and to the earnest German tourists she found there are somewhat sardonic: it is clear she much prefers the fairground-like mausoleum of Laurent-Désiré Kabila in Kinshasa. This modest, informal and multicoloured star-shaped construction, a tiny version of the cathedral at Brasília, is pinned to the ground by five vast sculpted fists and topped with stars and prongs. Chiang Kai-shek and Suharto got a gift shop.
So it is possible that Leick dislikes the Neo-Classical mausoleums. It is possible she also dislikes the pomposity and dreariness of much academic writing about architecture, and that she does not want to go down the route of ‘meaning’. It is possible that what she really wanted to write was a jolly, atmospheric, informed travelogue. That is what she is best at, and her editors should have sent her decisively along that route. And paid for a proper photographer.
Tombs of the Great Leaders: A Contemporary Guide
Author: Gwendolyn Leick
Publisher: Reaktion Books